'Petrified' man was big attraction in turn-of-the-last-century Montana

2009-03-13T23:00:00Z 'Petrified' man was big attraction in turn-of-the-last-century MontanaED KEMMICK Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
March 13, 2009 11:00 pm  • 

If nothing else, the owners of a Montana marvel known as "the petrified man" were good at advertising their product.

"The wonder of the century," they called it, and they rounded up purported doctors and dentists who testified that it was a genuine human being that had somehow turned to stone.

A postcard from the early 1900s advertising the curio included quotes from Dr. S.E. Schwartz ("A most remarkable curiosity and absolutely authentic") and Dr. Donald D. Campbell ("I have examined the petrified man and consider it a genuine specimen and a wonder").

The owners hit on an even better selling point when they began identifying the specimen as the petrified remains of Thomas Francis Meagher, an Irish revolutionary, Civil War general and acting governor of Montana Territory at the time of his death in 1867.

In 1899 and on into the early 1900s, the petrified man was displayed all over Montana at 25 cents a gawk, bringing in thousands of dollars. It was also seen, somewhat less enthusiastically, in Chicago and New York.

Much was written about the curiosity in its heyday, but the two questions most likely to be asked by anyone interested in the petrified man nowadays - was it real and where did it end up? - remain unanswered.

A man named Tom Dunbar claimed to have found the petrified body in the Missouri River a little downstream of Fort Benton in 1897. The river level was low and the body was underwater, half buried in sand, Dunbar later told a New York newspaperman.

Dunbar said he pulled the body out of the river with a rope, and having no wagon then, buried it in the sand well away from the river until he could come back for it, which he did 18 months later. He immediately took to exhibiting the petrified man to tourists in Yellowstone National Park.

A reporter for the Bozeman Chronicle, in an article published Sept. 7, 1899, filed a story after viewing the remains. He said he knew the body was petrified because "the owner took a club and biffed it over the body with a resounding whack."

It was also in September of that year that Dunbar sold the petrified man to Arthur Wellington Miles, a nephew of Gen. Nelson A. Miles, for whom Miles City was named. W.A. Miles, a Livingston businessman and former mayor of that town, wasted no time capitalizing on his investment.

He began by displaying the petrified man, reclining in a pine coffin, in a vacant building near his lumberyard. The Great Falls Tribune reported on Oct. 3 that the curio was attracting big crowds and that receipts "have not yet fallen below $60 per day." That would convert to nearly $1,500 in today's dollars.

The petrified man was exhibited throughout Western Montana and eastern Washington in the last months of 1899, so successfully that Miles and his partners began to dream of bigger things - taking the petrified man by train to New York, with stops along the way in St. Paul, Chicago and other cities.

No previous attempts at identifying the petrified man had been made to this point, but with the prospect of an Eastern tour in mind, Miles suddenly "recollected" what a miner who viewed the specimen in Butte (or Anaconda, according to one source) had said regarding it.

An article published in the New York World on Dec. 31, 1899, with a Butte dateline, reported that the miner, viewing the remains, exclaimed, "It is the General - God rest his soul! It is the General!"

Asked what general he was referring to, the old miner replied, "Gen. Meagher, surely! If that is not the hand of Thomas Francis Meagher, may mine be withered!" Saying which, he pointed to "a slight peculiarity" of Meagher's hand, which was not further explained.

The story stuck, mainly because Meagher, acting governor of Montana Territory at the time of his death, expired close to where the petrified man was found. Meagher was on a steamboat at the Fort Benton levee when he stumbled, dived or was pushed over the rail into the Missouri River on the night of July 1-2, 1867.

There was a hole in the petrified man's skull. Originally thought to have been a bullet hole, it was now said to have been caused by an arrowhead, and his hands were bound in thongs of leather, also petrified. As one theory ran, Meagher was killed by Indians - no one hearing the silent arrow - who dragged him out of the river, bound his hands and then, "alarmed at the commotion" made by Meagher's friends on the steamboat, threw him back in the water.

There he sat, somehow becoming petrified at the bottom of the river, until Dunbar found him 30 years later.

Armed with this new legend, the owners of the petrified man looked forward to his grand tour. When the procession started east in December 1899, Miles and his partners were briefly alarmed by an incident in Billings, where the pioneer scout and Indian fighter "Liver Eatin'" Johnston was brought to view the petrified man.

According to an undated article from an unnamed newspaper, found in the archives of the Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton, Johnston took one look at the stone man, described as the "stellar curiosity of the day," and said, "Hully gee! I knew that fellow 25 years ago. That's Antelope Charley!"

Johnston then went on to explain, in great detail, how Antelope Charley had gone off with 10 barrels of whiskey to trade with Indians below Fort Benton and had apparently lost both his investment and his life at the hands of his prospective clients.

Miles and his associates did all they could to quash this new theory, and they worked hard to publicize the Eastern tour and the connection with the Irish hero Meagher.

Antelope Charley was soon forgotten, but in any guise the petrified man did not stir much interest in Chicago and New York. The late historian Dave Walter, in his book "Montana Campfire Tales," said revenue from the New York showing in January 1900 "totaled less than the incurred expenses."

The petrified man continued to be shown sporadically in Montana. Laura Steinmetz of Laurel owns a postcard, apparently dating to the early 1900s, advertising an exhibit of "A Great Wonder, a Petrified Man," at an undisclosed location. It tells how he was pulled from the Missouri and exhibited in Yellowstone Park, but there is no mention of Gen. Meagher.

An ad for the "Wonder of the Century, the Petrified Man," appeared in the Anaconda Standard in 1910, and on Sept. 20, 1922, the Billings Gazette ran a vertical photo of the "Petrified Man Snapped in Repose," which was then on display at the Midland Empire Fair Grounds. A part of the caption read: "Educational exhibit for ladies, gentlemen and children, nature's masterpiece."

Walter said A.W. Miles sold the petrified man "just after World War I." He also said that Daniel N. Miles, A.W.'s son, recalled seeing the specimen at a later date, when the buyer exhibited him in a trailer. That buyer subsequently sold the curiosity to another showman, and the Miles family lost track of him.

An article from the Helena Daily Independent, dated Sept. 28, 1922, said the owner of the petrified man at that point was V.M. King, of whom nothing else is known. That article and many others were unearthed by Ken Robinson, a historian at the research center in Fort Benton.

Stan Todd of Livingston, Daniel N. Miles' stepson, never saw the petrified man himself, and he regrets that he didn't listen more closely to his father's stories when he was young. He does recall that the thing "was quite a novelty," and as far as he remembers, his father considered it a hoax.

When Montana The Magazine of Western History wrote about the petrified man in its Winter 1962 edition, the whereabouts of the petrified man were unknown. The last sentence read: "If any of our readers can provide further clues, let us hear them."

Apparently no one responded, and the editors of The Gazette can only renew that plea here.

Meanwhile, the big question remains: What exactly was the thing advertised as the petrified man? None of the contemporary articles takes a stab at an answer. Even the stories that poked fun at the marvel made no attempt to say what it actually was.

Montana The Magazine of Western History quoted an anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution who said "there are no reliably reported instances of human flesh that has become fossiled."

Tom Roll, a professor emeritus in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Montana State University Bozeman, said the petrified man was most likely a simple hoax. He said petrification involves the replacement of the original material - bones, say, or wood - by silica, and it is "extremely doubtful that fleshy human remains would survive to be petrified."

Randall Skelton, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Montana, concurred in calling it a hoax. It has never been shown that a human body could petrify, he said, though there are cases of fat being converted to a soap-like substance called adipocere. This occurs in wet environments, and there is at least one case of minerals from the soil permeating the adipocere and making it harder, he said.

Roll also mentioned the Bog People of England, whose fleshy parts were preserved in an anaerobic environment. But the Fort Benton petrified man was apparently hard as stone, and advertisements said the 5-foot-10-inch specimen weighed 365 pounds.

Other evidence of a hoax is that the Montana petrified man was hardly the only such curiosity in the 1800s and early 1900s. The famous Cardiff Giant, found on a farm near Cardiff, N.Y., in 1869, caused a sensation for many years and made a fortune for its owner, George Hull. He later admitted having hired men to carve the 10-foot giant out of a block of gypsum.

Similar hoaxes were common in the West. In 1862, a young Mark Twain wrote an article for the Territorial Express in Virginia City, Nev., about the discovery of a petrified man. Twain later admitted that he fabricated the story in hopes of ending the public's fascination with such hoaxes.

"One could scarcely pick up a paper without finding in it one or two glorified discoveries of this kind," Twain wrote. "The mania was becoming a little ridiculous. … I chose to kill the petrification mania with a delicate, a very delicate satire."

His satire proved too subtle. The article was widely reprinted, only adding to the mania.

Even if the purported petrified remains of Gen. Meagher are never found, an equestrian statue of the former territorial governor remains on display on the grounds of the state Capitol in Helena.

And this summer, the Thomas Francis Meagher Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Helena plans to unveil a bronze bust of Meagher, resting on a black granite base, on the levee in Fort Benton. The spot chosen is just across Main Street from the Baker House, where Meagher spent his last hours before boarding the steamboat.

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